Hawai‘i is the Only State in the U.S. Where Humpback Whales Go to Have Their Babies

Plus 10 more wonderful facts to know before whale watching in Hawai‘i.


The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) IS now using non-invasive technology, such as drones.
Photos and Videos: Courtesy of University of Hawai‘i | NOAA permit 19703


Drones are the newest tool for marine mammal researchers. For us, the small, non-invasive cameras give us an amazing view of whales we’ve never seen before. For scientists, the video allows them to observe entire groups of whales and an opportunity to note behaviors they can’t see from a boat. Every bit of data is especially important as the numbers of mother-calf pairs in Hawaiian waters continue to fall. Tuesday and Wednesday, whale experts will be comparing data and discussing the trend.



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  1. Humpback whales visit the waters around Hawai‘i to mate and have calves November through May. The peak of the season, when you’re most likely to catch a gentle giant swimming around or, if you’re lucky, breaching the water is January through March.
  2. Hawai‘i is the only state in the U.S. where humpback whales go to have and nurse their babies. The other areas North Pacific whales travel to during the winter are Mexico and southern Japan.
  3. Whales were placed on the Endangered Species list in 1973. Today, according to the SPLASH report (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales) the number of whales in the North Pacific has climbed from an estimated 1,400 at the end of whaling in 1966 to just under 20,000 in 2008.
  4. In 2016, the federal government separated humpback whales into 14 populations; nine were considered recovered enough to no longer require extra protection. The Western North Pacific population is one of the four considered still endangered. All are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.


  5. The number of whales has been declining for the last few years. In 2017, the number of mother-calf pairs sighted dropped more than 50 percent from 2014. In 2018, according to a NOAA article, it fell another 35 percent. The number of whales showing up to traditional feeding spots in Glacier Bay, Alaska has also been falling. Experts are not sure if this is because warmer Alaskan water has resulted in less food, the population has reached it carrying capacity, or whales are simply staying farther away from Hawai‘i’s shores.
  6. Whale populations in the Antarctic and Monterey Bay have increased during that same time period.
  7. During the summer, the North Pacific whale population tends to feed in Alaska where the cool, nutrient-rich water helps create good populations of krill and small fish. Whales do not eat while in our waters.


  8. Humpback whales live 80 to 90 years.
  9. To spot a whale, scan the surface of the ocean, looking for a whale’s blow which can go up to 20 feet in the air. Depending on how often it surfaces can tell you if the whale is an adult (which comes up for air about every 10 to 15 minutes) or a calf (surfaces every three to five minutes).
  10. On O‘ahu, NOAA says the four best places to whale watch are all on the East side: Lighthouse, Halona Blowhole, Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head.
  11. Volunteers are always needed for the Sanctuary Ocean Count, which helps experts keep track of how many whales are coming into the islands. Sign up begins in mid-December on NOAA’s website and happens the last Saturday of January, February and March.


There are eight common whale movements we’ll tend to see during the season ranging from just a distant blow of water into the air to tail and pec slaps. See the guide on hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov.